Opinion: The BNP membership list and the lessons for Lib Dems

A few days ago, a dissident member of the British National Party posted his party’s membership list on the internet. The publication of this data provides us with some interesting information about the demographics of BNP membership.

The Guardian (20 November) published an interactive map showing the concentration of BNP membership by parliamentary constituency.

On BBC2’s Newsnight (19 November), its political editor Michael Crick drilled down further. Newsnight commissioned polling company Ipsos-MORI to analyse the BNP membership list. The top five places where BNP members live are Halifax, Blackburn, Blackpool, Leicester and Romford. There are hardly any members in Scotland and few in the rest of London outside Romford. The membership is 80% male.

The places where BNP members live was also analysed according to the ‘mosaic’ system used by marketing companies to break down the country into different social categories. The highest concentration of BNP members is in the ‘Ties of Community’ category, defined as “close-knit communities, small industrial towns, terraced housing, strong Labour voting”.

The second concentration is in the ‘Blue Collar Enterprise’ category, defined as “council estates, not well-educated, self reliant (often bought their council house), ‘Sun’ readers”. The category where BNP membership is weakest is ‘Urban Intelligence’, defined as “young single, well-educated, Liberal views, prosperous”. The biggest concentration of BNP membership in terms of social class is C2 (skilled working class), more concentrated there than among the lower D/E classes of unskilled working class and unemployed.

The demographics of BNP membership come as no surprise – older, uneducated, white males form the bedrock of support for far-right parties throughout Europe. But what this profile also illustrates is that, in demographic as well as ideological terms, BNP membership is the polar opposite of Liberal Democrat support.

The ‘we can win everywhere’ brigade won’t like it, but the Liberal Democrats also have marked demographic characteristics. Our party’s natural support can be found more among those who are younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan than average. The evidence is overwhelming:

• At the 2005 general election, the Liberal Democrats performed best among voters aged 18-35 and worst among those aged over 65. Indeed, the Lib Dems captured a higher percentage of voters aged under 35 than the Tories (see ICM poll, May 2005). This was despite a Lib Dem election manifesto skewed towards the interests of elderly voters. Many of the seats gained in the 2005 election had a younger and better-educated population than average, with a university in or near the constituency (for example Cambridge, Bristol West and Manchester Withington). A recent ICM poll (October 2008) underlined this trend; Lib Dem support is strongest in the 25-34 age group at 31% and weakest among the over-65s at only 4% (figures not adjusted for don’t knows and refusers).

• In the 2004 European election, the trend was even more striking. Michael Steed analysed the results in an article in Liberator 201 (March 2005). In Greater London, he found that the Liberal Democrats performed best in the central and western boroughs where the population is younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan than average. They did worst in Barking and Dagenham, the borough with the least educated and third oldest population. Steed went so far as to say that the Lib Dem result could have been predicted on the basis of 2001 census data and that local campaigning appeared to have made little difference.

• As Liberal Democrat Voice readers know, recent research shows that Lib Dem voters are more intelligent than average.

• The annual British Social Attitudes Survey regularly shows a direct correlation between higher education and liberal attitudes. As an increasing proportion of the population experiences university, liberal attitudes gain ground. Take the example of the death penalty, a key issue distinguishing small ‘l’ liberals from small ‘c’ conservatives. A tipping point was reached three years ago, when a YouGov poll conducted for the Daily Telegraph (3 January 2006) showed that support for the restoration of the death penalty had fallen below 50% for the first time since its abolition 40 years previously. Young people were much less in favour of restoring capital punishment than their elders. Significantly, support for restoration was lowest among Lib Dem voters, at 35%.

• Liberal culture and policies provide economic benefits to the younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan demographic. Professor Richard Florida (see his book ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ and website) demonstrated a strong correlation between having a liberal and tolerant culture and enjoying economic success. He studied 100 American cities and found that liberal cities – those that are welcoming places for creative and bohemian people, ethnic minorities and gays – tend to thrive economically, whereas cities with a conservative and intolerant culture tend to fail. This is not a purely American phenomenon. Similar research has been conducted elsewhere in the western world (including Europe) and the findings are similar.

• During the 2005 general election campaign, the polling company YouGov revealed where a new fault line was opening up in public opinion. Its director Stephan Shakespeare suggested in the Observer (17 April 2005) that voters no longer range along a left-right axis, but are divided by ‘drawbridge issues’.

We are either ‘drawbridge up’ or ‘drawbridge down’. Are you someone who feels your life is being encroached upon by criminals, gypsies, spongers, asylum seekers, Brussels bureaucrats? Do you think the bad things will all go away if we lock the doors? Or do you think it’s a big beautiful world out there, full of good people, if only we could all open our arms and embrace each other?”

‘Drawbridge down’ is clearly where the Liberal Democrats belong. No other party represents such people, so why compete with the Conservatives, Labour, UKIP and the BNP for the bigoted ‘drawbridge up’ vote? It is quite mystifying why the Lib Dems seem more concerned to appease the people least likely to vote for them, than to energise the people most likely to.

For example, the party’s recent pre-manifesto ‘Make it Happen’ contained some unpleasant ‘dog whistles’ clearly aimed at ‘drawbridge up’ voters. In the section headed “Why have we lost our sense of community?” – where you would have thought Liberals had something distinctive to say – the key policy highlighted in bold text was a proposal to introduce “proper border checks”. Meanwhile, the only mention of the European Union was a call for a referendum.

This is rank defeatism. It risks alienating our core support while making us sound indistinguishable from the other parties. It is also short-sighted when social attitudes are moving in a liberal direction.

The biggest electoral barrier to Liberal Democrat long-term success is that the party’s support is transient and shallow. Indeed, polls and election studies ever since the merger have shown that about half of Lib Dem voters cannot even recall correctly which way they voted. The Lib Dem vote is like a bath with the taps left on and the plug left out. At each election, the party has to put a disproportionate effort into winning its previous vote afresh, and hence struggles to reach much beyond 20%. No more than 10% of the electorate remains loyal to the party, compared with a core vote of roughly 25% enjoyed by both Labour and the Tories. To remedy this, the party must cement the allegiance a larger base vote – and younger, better educated, more cosmopolitan people are the likeliest source.

Let us be clear what a ‘core’ or ‘base’ vote means. It does not mean all the people who vote for us or the only people who should vote for us. It means the people most likely to remain loyal to the Liberal Democrats and therefore the group whose support the party should consolidate as a base on which it can build.

But the necessary base vote cannot be secured if the party – forever petrified of causing offence – tries to be all things to all men or pitches to the wrong demographic altogether. The Liberal Democrats will never become a party of government if they sound like the boxer who, in the words of the song, was “afraid to throw a punch that might land”. The party must learn that it cannot attract without also repelling.

The real test will come at next June’s European elections. The Liberal Democrat campaign in 2004 was a disgrace. Activists were instructed not to mention Europe but focus on local issues. This strategy failed. Far from mollifying Eurosceptics, the party ended up coming fourth behind UKIP. Say what you like about UKIP, but at least it campaigned for what it believed in. The Lib Dems didn’t and consequently failed to mobilise their natural support.

The biannual Standard Eurobarometer poll regularly shows that roughly one-third of British voters are pro-European (with one-third anti- and the remainder holding no strong views either way). Significantly, pro-European respondents tend to be younger and better educated than average. Now you may say that 33% is a minority, but it is a substantially greater one than the 14.9% who voted Lib Dem in 2004. And if we fail to stand up for this large group of people, they have nowhere else to turn.

The 2009 Euro campaign is an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to be true to themselves, energise their natural support and consolidate a core vote, instead of indulging in yet another futile attempt to appease their opponents. So let’s stand up for ‘our’ people and stop imagining that everyone everywhere is equally likely to vote Lib Dem.

* Simon Titley is a Liberal Democrat activist who helps write and produce Liberator magazine.

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  • apart from a few correlation/causation issues, this post seems to be broadly on the money. sticking to core principles is the right strategy for the party where it perhaps wouldn’t be for the Conservatives, because our default position is, as poll after poll has shown, where most of British society is. we should be arguing for our principles, rather than viewing them as an embarrassment to be masked by right-wing rhetoric.

    this is why i didn’t buy Clegg’s rhetoric about ‘starting where the British people are, not where we think they should be’ is wrong; we’re not populists like Labour, we’re supposed to be liberals who argue for liberal principles. the Labour party drops a cause when it’s unpopular – one of our defining virtues has been to do the opposite and stick to our principles; we were right over Iraq, the environment and the economy; why does the party feel the need to chase votes on the EU and crime?

  • Apparently I live in the type “municipal dependency”, subset “low horizons”. 🙂

  • It actually is true for most residents, statistically. But I prefer VMs because they are aimed at the individual.


  • Hywel Morgan 22nd Nov '08 - 11:16pm

    I agree with most of this with the following observation.

    “Activists were instructed not to mention Europe but focus on local issues.”

    I was ALDC’s Campaigns & Development Officer at the time of those 2004 elections and I can’t remember receiving any such instructions.

    In fact to the contrary I produced artwork designed to be used in areas which had local elections on European issues and distributed to several thousand activists.

    As examples:
    “A vote for the Liberal Democrats in Europe will mean:…” mentioning the environment, stamping out excessive secrecy and a referendum on the constitution.

    “A strong team of Lib Dem MEPs will ensure that the EU continues to resist [GM foods]

    There are criticisism people can make about our 2004 European campaign but they should be founded on a full understanding of what people were told.

  • Simon Titley 23rd Nov '08 - 12:10am

    Hywel – The party’s strategy in the June 2004 campaign was to downplay Europe as far as possible. The quotations you list were at best a token effort and did not typify the thrust of the campaign advice being handed down.

    In those parts of the country where local elections were also taking place, the European election campaign was completely subordinated to incrementalist pavement politics. The party’s campaigners were instructed to focus on local issues and, presumably, were expected to trust that MEPs could somehow be elected on the coat-tails of local councillors.

    I have scoured back editions of the two main sources of campaign advice published at that time, ‘Grassroots Campaigner’ and ‘Goldmine’ (both published by the ALDC), produced during the eight months leading up to June 2004.

    Apart from the odd passing reference or lacklustre piece of artwork, the only advice I could find was this short but telling statement in the April 2004 edition of ‘Goldmine’, printed under the optimistic headline “Linking up the campaigns”:

    “If you have local elections then including a few positive messages about our European election campaign will enhance your chances locally and help the Euro campaign. However, concentrate your election campaign on the local issues as these will be the ones that people are most concerned about.”

    That quotation rather proves my point, don’t you think? And there’s more.

    Graham Watson MEP made this observation about the 2004 campaign (in the introduction to his 2006 booklet ‘Liberalism – something to shout about’):

    “The height of incredulity of Liberal Democrats in recent years was using European election literature to campaign to save the pensions book – something MEPs can do nothing about and which in any case a Liberal Democrat government, committed to use of technology and effective use of taxpayers’ money, would certainly abolish.”

    The inhibitions about Europe carried over into the past two general election campaigns. Charles Kennedy, writing in the Guardian (4 August 2006), said:

    “As someone who has led his party through two general elections I have not always been immune from feeling the pressure of electioneering tactics. I have not always fully exploited the opportunity to influence public debate. I did not dwell on the issue of Europe during either the 2001 or the 2005 campaigns – despite it being a pivotal personal concern and despite seeing it as something of a litmus test for liberal democracy. I was persuaded away from such rash behaviour because it would carry too many downsides electorally.”

    The evidence is clear. There has been an assumption underlying the party’s campaigns that its pro-European sympathies are an electoral liability. This assumption has no rational basis and the ensuing cowardice caused our party to come fourth behind UKIP in 2004.

  • Hywel Morgan 23rd Nov '08 - 12:53am


    “Activists were instructed not to mention Europe but focus on local issues.”


    “If you have local elections then including a few positive messages about our European election campaign will enhance your chances locally and help the Euro campaign. However, concentrate your election campaign on the local issues as these will be the ones that people are most concerned about.”

    Contradict each other. Where they had local elections activists were quite clearly not told to “ignore Europe”

    You are quite free to criticise advice that the main focus in areas with local and European elections shouldn’t be on the local campaign – but I’ll stand by the view that this is the right approach.

    It was the approach I followed in the campaigning I did in Oldham where we were about 30 votes from polling most votes across the Borough (I also wrote a lot of the literature in the 1999 campaign when Oldham East was one of one three constituencies won by us but that’s a side issue)

  • Andrew Turvey 23rd Nov '08 - 12:55am

    “This assumption [pro-European sympathies are an electoral liability] has no rational basis ”

    Except perhaps the fact that our support at European elections is consistently lower than our support at every single other level.

  • “Except perhaps the fact that our support at European elections is consistently lower than our support at every single other level.”

    That could be because the European elections are proportional, and voters don’t have to think about tactics, but can choose whatever smaller party is closest to them, for instance the Greens.

  • I think that the Lib Dem Euro campaining material should include something addressed to eurosceptics – after all, there are plenty of them in the party.

    If people tell me to deliver pro-Europe Focus leaflets because Europe is good, without explaining why, I’ll tell them where to stick their propoganda.

  • That’s true, too. Liberalism isn’t the same thing as supporting European Union indiscriminately, and not all decisions made on European level are liberal.

    So Liberal Democrats should choose, what unites them, liberalism or support to every decision made on European level.

  • David Morton 23rd Nov '08 - 4:48am

    Another excellent article. If the House of Commons were ever elected by mosiac catergory then i’m sure we could pull this off. While its elected by geographical constituiency by FPTP then it would be fatal.

    What interests me is with the advent of List PR in London, wales, Scotland and for Europe how little we have experimented with some of these ideas.

  • Grammar Police 23rd Nov '08 - 9:27am

    @ Andrew Turvey – that’s because, especially in weaker areas, we stick to strict geographical targetting, often of just one ward, even in proportional elections.

    We seem to forget that in fptp elections, our vote is made up of three parts – core voters; those who like our work locally; and the squeezed votes of other weaker parties. The second (to an extent) and third of which don’t really apply in more proportional elections. To improve our share of the vote across whole areas we need to target our core voters – using voter ID where available, council tax banding, mosaic, etc.

  • Simon Titley 23rd Nov '08 - 12:25pm

    Mark – Yes, you can cite these random quotations. They do not disprove my point, which is that the thrust of the party’s strategy in 2004 was to focus on target wards (using our traditional campaign techniques) and make the European elections subsidiary to that concern.

    You have to explain why our MEPs are still spitting blood about the conduct of the 2004 campaign – and why they are fighting hard to ensure that the 2009 campaign will not repeat those mistakes (see, for example, Chris Davies’s article in September’s Liberator (http://www.liberator.org.uk/article.asp?id=146304069).

    And you have to explain why the party has yet to evolve a satisfactory strategy for PR and list elections, as our underwhelming performance in European elections, the London mayoral and assembly elections, and Scottish and Welsh elections has demonstrated.

    The Lib Dem campaign techniques that have worked so well under FPTP simply don’t work in list elections, certainly not when you have constituencies the size of European parliamentary ones. A dogmatic adherence to ritual tactics prevents the Lib Dems from achieving their potential in these elections.

    As I stated in my original post, roughly one-third of the electorate is pro-European. No other party (except arguably the Greens) is competing for them. Traditional Lib Dem tactics neither reach nor mobilise this substantial body of opinion – indeed, by competing for the Eurosceptic vote, we probably put them off.

    Rather ironic, is it not, that the party that champions PR has no idea how to fight a PR election?

  • Simon Titley 23rd Nov '08 - 1:36pm

    Mark – Then why was the Lib Dem result in 2004 so poor? If the strategy was correct, the Lib Dems would have polled significantly higher than UKIP.

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The target ward strategy patently does not work in Euro elections and it failed badly in this year’s London elections.

    Chris Davies MEP, in his article in this September’s Liberator (http://www.liberator.org.uk/article.asp?id=146304069), said of his campaign in the North-West region in 2004: “Technically it was as good as it got”. Yet he estimates that the campaign added no more than 1% to the Lib Dem vote.

    Michael Steed, in an analysis of the Lib Dem performance in the 2004 Euro elections (published in Liberator in March 2005, at http://www.liberator.org.uk/article.asp?id=47603928),
    says: “In London, at any rate, there is litle sign that campaigning at borough or constituency level mattered much: hardly any cases where a borough’s performance cannot be predicted from the character of its population revealed in the 2001 census.”

    The persistence in Cowley Street of pursuing clapped out techniques simply beggars belief. If this thinking predominates in the 2009 campaign – as Chris Davies warns in his article – the Lib Dems are bound to lose seats.

  • The problem we have had with Euro elections is that most of them are doubled up with local elections.

    Next year, we are faced with a choice of giving priority to the Euros or to the counties, and it is fairly obvious which choice we will make and why.

    A pro-EU campaign theme could well bring pro-Europeans to our banner and boost our overall vote. But it might also have the effect of putting people off voting for us in the county polls.

    The Lib Dems have never fought a decent Euro campaign. Remember 1989? Andy Ellis dismissed the election as “for Euro bores” and counselled a minimalist campaign. His advice was heeded and the result is history. Ellis turned from being a legend in his own lifetime to an unperson within the space of a week.

    Do I have the answer? Nope.

  • Simon Titley 23rd Nov '08 - 3:18pm

    Geoffrey – At no stage does my article suggest that public opinion is fixed in certain demographic groups. Of course you can find C2s who vote Lib Dem and young graduates who support the BNP. However, the demographics enable us to identify which groups are more likely to support the Lib Dems.

    I dare say that we could win over some BNP supporters if we put in enough effort. But why focus our efforts on them when there is more promising territory elsewhere?

    You counsel against “ignoring” BNP voters but not against ignoring our natural support. It seems perverse to ignore more intelligent and cosmopolitan voters by pandering to xenophobic sentiments, which, for example, Make it Happen does.

    The Lib Dems need to consolidate a base vote. The likeliest source for this vote is among people who are younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan than average – the evidence I marshalled in my original post makes an overwhelming case for this.

    The party’s resources are limited. The term “lowest hanging fruit” is business jargon I would rather not use. Nonetheless it is a more profitable course of action to win the long-term allegiance of people who tend to share our values rather than expend effort where the yield is likely to be lowest.

  • Our problem with the London and European elections isn’t the electoral system, it’s the size of the constituencies.

  • Both Geoffrey Payne & Simon Titley are right, but also wrong, in their contentions 🙂

    MOSAIC is a very good broad-brush system, which is why salesmen (&, as we know, politicians). But you cannot expect the door to inevitably be answered by a walking cliche.

    Best of all is to listen to people on the doorstep & aim anything at them personally. Leaflets can be generic for any given, defined area, but something more may be called for 🙂

  • *which is why salesmen & politicians make heavy use of it.


    I find it fascinating that the man who created MOSAIC wrote the text himself. I’m glad he did, & seemed to reolutely ignore his PR department, because there are some good laughs & a lot of information in amongst that 210 pages 😀

  • Simon Titley 23rd Nov '08 - 5:48pm

    Asquith – No-one is arguing that the party should focus exclusively on one Mosaic category to the exclusion of another. Mosaic only arose at all because Newsnight used it to analyse the BNP’s membership.

    My point is – for the nth time – that the Lib Dems’ natural support – i.e. those people who most share our liberal values – are more likely to be found among people who are younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan than average.

    That doesn’t mean that all young, educated and cosmopolitan people are liberal. It doesn’t mean that everyone else isn’t.

    What it does mean is that, when it comes to the Lib Dems winning and consolidating a core vote – a prerequisite of national as opposed to ward-level success – this demographic is more promising than any other.

    Your “best of all” of listening to people on the doorstep and aiming anything at them personally is fine as far as it goes, but it can work as an overall strategy only if (a) the party has enough manpower to canvass the entire electorate in person; (b) the party sticks purely to local issues and avoids making moral choices; and (c ) the party is in a position to make a bespoke offer to each individual.

    When it comes to communicating values via the medium of television, your proposal is inadequate, to put it mildly.

  • Aha. Well, there’s nothing I’d really disagree with there. I like MOSAIC as a broad-brush system, yes.

    But if you’re talking about using TV as a medium, & presumably you like blogs too, you may wish to look at the following tasty links:


    I very much hope you & others will read them & not get bored. You’ll thank me if you do 🙂

  • Simon Titley 23rd Nov '08 - 7:39pm

    Asquith – Thank you, these are excellent resources. Like you, I hope people read them.

    They bear out my point – that the Lib Dems (like all parties) tend to appeal to some groups more than others, that the party needs to plan its national strategy accordingly, and that it must accept that appealing to one target will unavoidably repel another.

    The barrier to doing so is that, because the ‘we can win everywhere’ strategy is incoherent, no matter what target the party selects, there will always be a Lib Dem MP or councillor somewhere who can veto the party’s strategic choice on the grounds that “it won’t work on my patch”.

    The leadership likes to talk of “tough choices”. Let’s get off the fence and make some.

  • Hywel Morgan 23rd Nov '08 - 10:02pm

    “They bear out my point – that the Lib Dems (like all parties) tend to appeal to some groups more than others”

    That’s true. However consider this in the context of what to do in a local and Euro combined election. Is there a significant group of people who would vote for us in a Euro election but not in a local election?

    My view is no. Following on from that my view is that the best strategy is first of all to get as many Lib Dem local election voters to “the polls” as possible. Given that local election turnout is consistently higher than Euro election turnout it seems logical that local campaign messages would be the best to motivate people to turnout.

    I don’t accept your contention that the 2004 elections were a disaster. Our vote went UP when there was a big non-aligned party vote (usually we suffer disproportionately when that is the case). How much better were we credibly likely to do?

    Chris’s 1% point has been made before. It’s a bit of a distortion though. Our vote share in the NW went up by 4.1% – compared to 4.3% in the NE true. But we were also trying to gain a seat in the NE so I’m not convinced an analysis that “much more” was done in the NW would be borne out. The NE actually outpolled our 2001 General performance.

    An area where very little was done would by my own of Yorkshire & the Humber where we went up by 1.1%. That suggest our “flawed” campaign in the NE & NW actually had a premium of +3%. Starting from around 11.5% that actually sounds pretty healthy.

    None of this is to say that we shouldn’t critically examine the way we campaign in the Euros, in PR elections and particularly with list votes. In all three we underperform. The idea that there are senior campaigners unwilling to accept this is, frankly, nonsense. But if we chuck away the way we do do things we need to know that the alternatives are likely to be at least as effective.

    And really there is very few practical alternative suggestions that I see being put forward other than a vague idea that the European election campaign should be “about Europe”. Whatever that means.

    But lets get a bit devils advocate here – MEPs complain about the party ignoring Europe. Their website libdemmeps.org.uk has a section on “latest campaigns” with four videos. The most recent is undated, the others are dated Oct, Sept, March 2007.

    When including MEP material in leaflets it’s very much a DIY operation – ie pick what the local party wants to say. No-one is attempting to set an agenda.

    Where are our MEPs on shooting down the directive that lies behind the database proposals currently being battered by us in the Lords?

    If the party is unwilling to produce material putting a strong European message why don’t the MEPs club together to employ one or more campaign staff and start producing some stuff. This is fundamentally how ALDC started

  • The problem is, people who should be our core vote (the “ultra” Liberal, social liberals, Europhiles, “drawbridge down”) – are frequently younger and younger educated people who DON’T VOTE.

    The number of people (often my friends, actually) who tell me they’d vote for the Lib Dems if we were more Liberal would be worrying… Until I discover that they didn’t vote at the last election, the one before, or – in fact – ever. This is because they are young, and though I sound like a broken record for saying this, young people simply don’t vote. They just don’t. Ask the team in Manchester Central Ward what turnout was amongst the generally young, educated voters. In a target ward, where we and Labour tried REALLY hard to turn young people out.

    Turnout was 15%!

  • Markie wrote:

    “The problem is, people who should be our core vote (the “ultra” Liberal, social liberals, Europhiles, “drawbridge down”) – are frequently younger and younger educated people who DON’T VOTE.”

    This is where Lembit could have helped out. A bit of bloody razzmatazz and all that?

    Suits don’t appeal to the young, at least not since the Beatles exchanged theirs for jeans and T-shirts.

  • Joe Donnelly 27th Nov '08 - 9:23pm

    As a 16 year old ‘ultra’ liberal (realising that lib dems should be aiming for 18+ obviously) I would say that the problem with the lib dems appeal is not that they are not ‘ultra’ enough. Instead its that the ‘ultraness’ is too hard to find and a person has to take an interest and look into the party to discover its true principles.

    Why aren’t MPs banging on about freedom, truth and justice? Theres no reason the liberals shouldn’t be delivering the most passionate speeches in parliament!

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